DNA-X 2012 #4 Land of the Dakota

November 14th, 2012 by

“ I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota”
Theodore Roosevelt


The Discover North America Expedition pushes west leaving the Great Lakes behind as we wind our way through Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Forests, bogs, rivers and lakes cover this wet state that suddenly, along its western border, turns dry and treeless as we enter North Dakota. Named for the largest division of the Native American Sioux family, Dakota (North and South) comprises a vast area of the northern Great Plains. But flat plains are not the only feature here and we aim for Medora, a small town in western North Dakota.

Nestled in the heart of the badlands along the banks of the Little Missouri River, Medora is on the doorstep of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. With over 70,000 acres of dramatic badlands scenery, herds of bison, elk, deer, wild horses, pronghorn antelope, prairie dog towns and more we had to take a look. What we discovered was one of America’s best-kept secrets! The park is sectioned into the North Unit and South Unit, both are easily accessible and have scenic drives punctuated by hiking trails, overlooks and campgrounds. Our biggest surprise was the lack of traffic and crowds that overwhelm so many of our better-known national parks. The result was we were able to experience the land as Roosevelt did when he came here, fell in love with the area, bought a ranch and said; “The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom”.


Medora is also well known for the Medora Musical, a popular nighttime western show performed in an outdoor theater outside of town. As we had booked a room at the Rough Riders Hotel our package included tickets to the show. We decided to inspect the theater in the afternoon and were surprised that a crowd was already gathering hours early to grab a good seat at the pre-show BBQ.  The busloads of tourists would then shuffle next door to the amphitheater for the two and a half hour show. We decided a nice quiet dinner at the hotel would be much more relaxing.

A conversation with a local in the bar that night revealed a startling development across the state- the oil rush is on. He is from the small town of Williston that is ground zero in oil and gas development and as he said it has changed his town forever. Over the next 15 years there will be 20,000 to 30,000 oil wells in the state and already the state is second to Texas in oil production, passing Alaska and California. The additional practice of fracking threatens to pollute the states aquifer. These boomtowns have forced a 300% increase in rents, straining infrastructure, and increasing crime. The lack of housing has created “man camps” which he said have an ambiance that is halfway between Motel 6 and a minimum-security prison. Even in Medora oil workers regularly stay at our hotel and recent renovations were apparently paid for by the copious profits of the oil companies. Along the Theodore Roosevelt National Park boundary oilrigs are springing up, ruining once pure vistas and threatening pollution problems. As Roosevelt said “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob by wasteful use the generations that come after us”. I don’t think he would approve of this invasion.